Fauquier students welcome home wounded Marine
Members of the Warrenton American Legion Post 72 and students, parents and teachers from C. Hunter Ritchie Elementary honored Marine Sgt. Michael Frazier Tuesday evening. - Photo by Glenn Howell
The children saw the burden of war on United States Marine Corps Sgt. Michael Frazier: brawny, broad-shouldered -- missing both legs.
But when Frazier saw the welcoming crowd of C. Hunter Ritchie Elementary School students and their parents at American Legion Post 72 Tuesday evening, he tucked in his chin, pressed his mouth into a line and blinked back tears.
Frazier came to the Warrenton post to thank its members in person for sending him cards made by Fauquier County students. A crowd of more than 100 children, their parents, and American Legion members filled the hall to honor the Marine.
"I'm honored and absolutely blown away," Frazier said after receiving a warm welcome, gifts and music from the crowd.
"I just wanted to come out and thank you all. And you treat me with open arms, and uh..."
He paused, rubbing his eyes with his left hand.
"It... 'scuse me," he said, faltering.
"It's OK, Devil Dog," one of the post members called out.
"Oorah," yelled another.
"It means the world to us when we get anything from the American public when we're in harm's way," Frazier told the crowd.
"But it meant more to me to receive something from you all when I woke up in a hospital room. That just shows me that we've not been forgotten," he said.
Frazier, 30, stepped on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan last year, in the midst of his fourth tour of duty. The blast cost him his legs and badly injured his right hand.
When he regained consciousness in Walter Reed National Military Center in Bethesda, Md., he remembered Navy corpsman Monica Montes, who he would later marry, standing by his side.
And he remembered seeing a stack of thank-you cards from Fauquier students, gathered by American Legion Riders from Post 72.
"When I first heard about this, I couldn't talk for two days, I was so choked up," said post member Sam Jesselson. "I kept thinking, 'How can we possibly have somebody so courageous want to thank us for the simple job of making a card and sending it to him, when he's given so much?'"
In the minutes leading up to Frazier's arrival, the children squirmed and chattered, lively in the wood-paneled meeting hall usually given over to the solemnity of old warriors.
The kids and their parents didn't know when or if they should stand or salute while the post members hurried through the night's agenda to get to Frazier's welcome.
But when Frazier came into view, the room burst into a wall of applause.
Led by C. Hunter Ritchie's music director Steve Aiello, the school's Singin' Eagles performed Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA."
A crowd of third graders also signed the lyrics with American Sign Language.
"That was absolutely beautiful," Frazier said, grinning after their performance.
The Legion Riders' drive to collect hand-made cards from students has grown quickly, said Post Commander Mike Freeman. The first year, seven Fauquier schools gave the post about 700 cards.
That number has grown to about 2,700 cards from 13 participating schools, Freeman said.
The project helps form a bond between the next generation and the service members who fought on their behalf, Freeman said.
After the meeting, many of that generation -- and their parents -- lined up to hug and thank Frazier, a man they had never met.
C. Hunter Ritchie principal Cristy Thorpe was proud to see her students and the effect they had on Frazier.
"[They learn] even at their age, they have something to give to our country," Thorpe said.
At the end, Post Adjutant John Sinclair stood up to speak. A Vietnam veteran, Sinclair said he received a similar thank-you card in 1965.
Forty-seven years later, that card still shines in his memory.
"You don't know what it does for us," Sinclair said, his voice wavering.